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After This A Novel Alice McDermott Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 280 pp., $24

September 24, 2006|Lisa Teasley | Lisa Teasley is the author of the novels "Heat Signature" and "Dive," as well as the award-winning story collection "Glow in the Dark."

ALICE McDERMOTT is a literary heir to Virginia Woolf, but unlike her predecessor, she renders this moving portrait of family -- and how it is affected by morality and war -- with more love and breathing room. McDermott takes her time with narrative, paying exquisite attention to small gestures, the seemingly trivial moments that are really the stuff of our lives. She does this without any extra explanations, ruminations or judgment. McDermott's sixth novel, "After This," is the story of the Irish Catholic Keane family of Long Island and its growing pains during the tumultuous middle decades of 20th century America.

We first meet the good and innocent matriarch, Mary Keane, when she is still called Mary Rose and convinced she is doomed to spinsterhood and thus grateful to be on a lunch date with her brother's friend. Not that she cares for him; it is rather that there is a man interested in her at all. In intimate detail, McDermott gives us Mary's walk on wind-swept New York City streets, on the way to meeting her date. Mary's trepidation and excitement as he leads her by the elbow to the restaurant fill paragraphs. She is cut back down to size upon her return to the office, seeing her co-worker Pauline, who remains what Mary dreads: virgin and spinster. Much later in the novel, when Pauline's life is fatefully intertwined with Mary's, their friendship is described like this:

"[W]hat had bound them all these years had more to do with how their acquaintance had begun (for how could you pray with any sincerity if you were also hoping to ditch the annoying girl at your side?), with habit and circumstance, obligation and guilt, than it had ever had to do with affection, commiseration.... There had been the trick of living well, living happily in her ordinary life under Pauline's watchful eye.... a woman who always saw the dashed tear, the torn seam, who remembered the cruel word, the failed gesture, who knew that none of them would get by on good intentions alone, or on the aspirations of their pretty faith."

Mary marries John Keane, who carries the World War II scars of a bad leg and the loss of his beloved comrade, Jacob, after whom they name their first child. Three more children follow -- Michael, Annie and Clare -- as does Vietnam, when Jacob is drafted. As the Keanes weather tragedy and the subsequent decades' cultural revolutions, they lose their innocence.

Earlier, when Jacob comes to pick up his younger sister to take her to the dentist, McDermott does a beautiful study of sibling love as Clare recognizes her brother for the first time as a human being: "There was the stubble of a beard on her brother's cheek and his hair brushed the collar of his shirt. She was beginning to feel the first pinpricks of doubt, or guilt. The morning was growing long. The sun was now hot through the windshield. She was supposed to be in school. Surely it was not her first memory of her older brother -- he had once helped her make a bus for dolls out of a cardboard box and pushed it across the living-room carpet, from bus stop to bus stop -- but it was, perhaps, the first memory in which she saw him distinctly, on his own, apart from their house and their family, separate."

Like Carol Shields, McDermott is especially sensitive to the subtleties -- the joys and frustrations -- of female domesticity. Though she can be just as deft with males, we don't often hear or see the men outside the home, neighborhood or church. Even second son Michael's college passages contain less masculine edge than Annie's sexual awakening during her junior year abroad in Britain.

The novel is structured so that we see the world through the major characters' eyes, and some of the minor ones as well. McDermott masterfully changes point of view, often within the same chapter. Because she is so wonderful at capturing the inner lives of her characters, the sudden switch to a minor player -- such as the neighbor, schoolmate or priest -- may be the book's only frustration. The story could have been as effectively told from the perspective of each family member, period.

Still, McDermott is lushly descriptive and imaginatively precise in a way that brings us back to childhood, the time when we're excited about every small wonder and realization. Everything is new again with her prose. *

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